Monday, May 30, 2011

A Hopeful Place

I recently returned from two weeks in South Africa, which were not just fun and productive, but also educational and thought-provoking. I was particularly struck by one thing that seems to be in much greater supply in South Africa than in the USA: hope.

Most of us are familiar with the basic miracle behind modern South Africa. The peaceful transfer of power was an astonishing victory for the forces of reason, peace, tolerance, and, yes, love, over racism, hatred, and violence. I expected to see a society that is struggling to correct past wrongs and bring economic progress to millions of desperately poor people, and that's exactly what I saw.

What I didn't expect to see was so much optimism -- more than I've seen in America since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. There's a dark cloud of pessimism that hovers over many parts of American society; when we speak of the optimism of the 60's, we do so in part because we haven't seen it since. For a host of reasons, broad sections of our population no longer expect economic or social progress, and their pessimism may be self-fulfilling.

On the surface, there's little reason to expect South Africans to be more optimistic than Americans. Think unemployment's bad here? Try the 43% they're struggling with. Think we've got problems with health care or public education? Try bringing the dirt-poor South African majority up to the living standards of the elite. Throw in a per-capita GDP that's just over 1/5 of America's, and it sounds like a good recipe for civil strife -- which may yet happen. But it hasn't.

Instead, all the South Africans I talked to, while recognizing the enormity of the problems, seemed to believe that things are getting better, and will continue to do so if everyone pulls together. There's an impressive spirit of cooperation, looking forward, and not re-fighting old battles.

When I asked my South African friends how this miracle had come about, they all responded instantly with the same answer: Nelson Mandela. I had been an admirer of Mandela's for years, but I didn't know the half of it. The white South Africans, in particular, would sing his praises at the slightest opportunity. To them, he represented little short of a miracle.

You probably know the basics of the story: imprisoned for three decades, under appalling conditions most of that time, Mandela walked out of jail preaching a message of hope and forgiveness, of unity and peaceful cooperation. That was remarkable enough, but even more remarkable was the fact that the country, in all its diversity, chose to follow him down that path.

Thus, for example, our tour guide at Robben Island (where Mandela spent much of his time in prison), himself a former prisoner and leader of the Pan African Congress, had an inexhaustible supply of stories about how people all over the world helped end apartheid. He asked each of our nationalities, and instantly had a story about the role Canada, or Ireland, or Japan played in the struggle.

I cringed a bit when he found the first American; our record in the fight against apartheid was not much to be proud of. But he mentioned none of the negative, focusing instead on the many Americans who had helped. Still, I cringed even more when he asked "is there anyone of the Jewish faith here today?"

Israel, unfortunately, was one of the last, best supporters of the apartheid regime; it didn't support apartheid itself, but it maintained commercial ties after the rest of the world had broken them. So I might not even have raised my hand if Trina hadn't already done so. The tour guide seemed like a wonderful, literate, funny, and gentle man. But his name was Yassin Mohammed, and I've experienced enough anti-semitism in the US to simply expect it in circumstances like these. Instead, he launched into stories of how the Jewish community in South Africa had been in the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and told us of several Jewish heroes in the struggle. (Afterwards, he sought us out to talk privately about peace in Israel/Palestine, among other things.)

Here was another man who had spent years in these terrible prisons, refusing to look backwards, not seeking retribution, focused instead on building a better future for all of South Africa. Twenty years after Mandela's release from prison, this kind of optimism remains common in South Africa.  But in my experience, it has become a rarity in America.

At one point in my visit, I was discussing politics with some of my colleagues at work. People everywhere tend to know more about American politics than Americans known about anyone else's, and this crowd was no exception. Predictably, the conversation turned to the latest Republican atrocity, and I hastened to distance myself from them. One of my hosts, perhaps taking pity on me, said, "Well, you know, there are people like that everywhere."

His words were true, but there are far more of them some places than others. In reply, I simply asked, "Which South African political party believes that helping the poor is not a responsibility of government?"

Dead silence. South Africa has many more parties than the US, but there's no equivalent of the Republicans. When your society faces such a stark and visible gap between rich and poor, and when social stability so obviously depends on mitigating the worst poverty, Ayn Rand looks a lot less appealing. Indeed, it's only the fact that programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and others have reduced (and hidden) the problems of poverty that allows some Americans to believe that no such programs -- or no more such programs -- are necessary.

So, I came back from South Africa a bit jealous, not only of their spectacular wildlife and scenery, but of the sense that their country is on a journey that may not be easy, and may not even succeed, but that they are all taking together. Here in America, we're each on our own journey, with no sense that the homeless man on the street is in any way bound to our own fate. We're wrong. He is. But who can tell us, and who can lead us? Where is our Mandela?